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The Machinist

Year: 2005
Production Co: Filmax Group
Director: Brad Anderson
Cast: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sarian, Michael Ironside
What do John Goodman, Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Kate Winslet and Billy Bob Thornton have in common?

They're members of a constantly dwindling and exclusive club in films; they're those few actors who are just as comfortable in mainstream thrillers as they are in quirky arthouse and vanity projects.

Some names are almost part of the club but not quite. John Malkovich, while he's appeared in mainstream films like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Con Air, always has that little air of weirdness, and when he appears in a commercial film his character's invariably trading on that.

If audiences didn't realise before now that Christian Bale well and truly belongs in this exclusive club (after American Psycho, Shaft, Reign of Fire and Laurel Canyon, to name a few), it won't be hard to miss during June. Released just days apart in Australia, The Machinist and Warner Bros' big hope for the 2005 American summer film season Batman Begins couldn't be two more different films. But Bale looks to be holding his own in both – it's amazing to realise he was the kid in Spielberg's adaptation of JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun way back in 1987.

In The Machinist, his dedication to the acting craft is apparent as soon as he appears on screen. Bale goes seriously method, having lost 60 pounds for the role. Ribs stick out on his back and his impossibly spindly frame and tightly drawn face are not only haunting, they're a credit to the man who ate nothing but a can of tuna and an apple for months in preparation for the role.

The reason for his sickness is a case of insomnia that's spun out of control. As Trevor Reznick, all he has in his life is his job in a machine engineering workshop, his relationship with call girl Stevie (Leigh), friendship with cafeteria waitress Marie and long nights staring at the ceiling wondering why he's going slowly insane after a year with virtually no sleep.

To make matters worse, weird things have started happening around him. A creepy guy has turned up at work and seems to come and go as he pleases, showing up only to taunt Trevor and talk in riddles. Someone's also been breaking into his apartment and playing hangman with him by leaving post it notes on his fridge.

And after an industrial accident at work, his workmates blame him for the accident and ostracise him from their circle of trust. With a boss who's already got it in for him, work is no happier a place to be than lying awake at home.

Trevor starts to explore a tentative and promising relationship with Marie and her young son Nicholas, but even on a fun trip to a theme park terrible things happen and Trevor can't decide if he's having gruesome visions or going truly mad.

Paranoia sets in. Convinced someone is playing with him, Trevor gradually turns on anybody and everybody that could be the perpetrator – guys at work, Stevie, the mysterious co-worker with the red Caddy.

The more desperate Trevor's measures to get to the bottom of his torment, the more shattering the truth becomes, until it's revealed in the last sixty seconds a la The Sixth Sense. Of course there'll be cinesnobs who snort derisively and say 'I worked it out long before the end', but that doesn't stop the story grabbing you with both hands. Even if you do guess the twist, the curiosity to see how it all plays out will rope you in.

If you're a fan of mysteries where you find out if the butler did it on the last page, The Machinist is for you.

But for pure directorial talent, Anderson captures a palpable sense of death-like fatigue in Trevor's grit-stained and terminally colourless existence. Bale brings the character to life with a quiet desperation that goes deeper than his sunken eyes and jutting pelvic bone, and the entire film is an example of great filmmaking just as the story is a good mystery. Like the best twist thrillers, tiny clues are scattered everywhere to watch for on subsequent viewings (not nearly all of them shown or explained in the final reveal).

And someone seriously needs to ask veteran actor Michael Ironside if he has an amputation fetish. After losing both arms to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall , both legs to a tank bug in Starship Troopers and now an arm to a machine accident in The Machinist, there's a disturbing pattern forming.

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